Oh, Hello Live! On (Off) Broadway
Two Comedy Central favorites play house at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
"Ooooooooooh, helloooo," incant Gil Faizon (Nick Kroll) and George St. Geegland (John Mulaney) at the very beginning of their new show at the Cherry Lane Theatre. And really, could this live version of the popular segment from Comedy Central's Kroll Show start any other way? Recently home to successful stand-up shows by Colin Quinn and Hasan Minhaj (both of which are playing return engagements this winter), the Cherry Lane has quickly become the theater for the Comedy Central set. Kroll and Mulaney join the fray in this laugh-out-loud sendup of the stage: its conventions, customs, and inhabitants.
Oh, Hello is about two people you might run into at the theater: Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland are septuagenarian roommates living on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Gil is an actor who has appeared as an extra on several television shows. George is a (forcibly) retired creative-writing professor best known for his 1971 novel Rifkin's Dilemma, a universally ignored Philip Roth knockoff. They familiarize us with some of the tropes of the stage (the slow fade on the last line, the one-sided phone call) before launching into a performance of their new play, We're Us, You're You, Let's Talk.
That play-within-the-play begins with George reading Tennessee Williams-esque stage directions describing their home on 73rd and Columbus ("Next to the door there's a mezuzah under the painted-over holes of a previous mezuzah"). Pacino-like, George stares into the darkness, looking for some unseen teleprompter. Suddenly, they receive a letter from the management informing them that their apartment is no longer rent-controlled: Instead of paying $75-a-month for three bedrooms, they must now pay $4,000 (a bargain for us market renters). Gil and George have to decide if they're willing to compromise the artistic vision of their cable access talk show, Too Much Tuna, in order to make the rent.
As with the film versions of SNL sketches, the first question is, invariably, "Do these characters have enough substance to carry a full-length work?" Expand the play correctly and you get a hit like Wayne's World; miscalculate and It's Pat. Oh, Hello falls somewhere in the middle: George and Gil, with their half-century relationship, definitely have depths to explore. Kroll and Mulaney gleefully unlock a secret world of Steely Dan records, ex-wives, and terrible diners occupied by two men who froze their lives in amber sometime around 1977.
Kroll plays Gil with consistently droopy eyelids and a childish lethargy: He's like a Jewish Ben Carson. He has a tendency to break into giggles, a weakness that the quick-witted Mulaney wickedly exploits with his unbreakable method performance (George has a serious dark side, and his relationship with Gil can only be described as platonically sadomasochistic). Mulaney improvises wildly, peering over his glasses as Kroll shakes, trying to suppress his laughter. Unexpectedly, there hasn't been this much perverse psychology on the stage of the Cherry Lane since Edward Albee's The Zoo Story played a series of runs there in the early '60s.
The show occasionally treads into the realm of acerbic satire: George fondly remembers how he and his fellow student activists "stopped the Vietnam War" by occupying the student union of his university. "The war ended eight years later in a chaotic genocide," he recalls, a satisfied grin on his face. It's a moment that is sure to smart for any flower children still holding a candle for what Gil calls "the rarely discussed '60s." Granted, few members of the audience appeared to have been born before 1970 the night I attended.
All of this is performed on Connor W. Munion's New York City skyline set, which efficiently borrows elements from Colin Quinn The New York Story, which is performing in rep. Kroll and Mulaney pad the evening with a celebrity guest interview on Too Much Tuna and a Q&A session staged in the form of a hostile press conference. It's all really funny, but at two hours with no intermission, perhaps just a little too long. Still, no one is likely to leave feeling like they didn't get their money's worth.
It's tempting to dismiss Oh, Hello as ageist minstrelsy: two spry thirtysomethings masquerading as pathetic old men for the delight of a young crowd. Of course, lampooning alter cockers and their foibles is a cherished theatrical ritual at least as old as Pantalone in commedia dell'arte. Kroll and Mulaney add their unique lunacy to that tradition, to hilarious effect. As we amass our own sacred cows and strange habits, one suspects that subsequent generations of comedians will have ample material once Gen-X and millennial Americans begin to slip into senility.